Volume 8, Number 8, Summer 1984
Before the turn of the twentieth century float fishing as a recreational activity was born and later perfected in the Ozarks. The trips were one of the first forms of tourism in the Ozarks White River region. They attracted people from all parts of the Unites States. The White River region probably retains more stories and memories of this Ozarks odyssey than any other river region in the Ozarks. But has float fishing become a dying memory in the minds of those in past generations?
The "john boat" was the tool of transportation used in float fishing. John boats ranged in size from smaller 12 to 14 footers to long, narrow 22 foot boats. Most of these boats were very heavy, built with rough cut green oak and hemlock planks. One anonymous floater wrote that on a float from Forsyth in 1900, a local carpenter built their boat. It was 12 to 14 feet long and over four feet wide, constructed with green hemlock an inch and a quarter thick. The floater claimed it had the "gross tonnage of the Oceanliner, Queen Mary." He continued, "that craft could generate one knot an hour by hard paddling in the long eddies, but lethargy vanished when we approached a rapid. Gathering velocity it would charge down rock-studded water like a bull elephant run amok; any attempt to steer it was futile...It was capable of knocking out of its path boulders half its own size."
John boats did not leak despite the crack between the planks. Because the rough cut planks did not fit together tightly, tar and hemp rope was used to fill the cracks. Boats were also submerged so the planks would swell and close the cracks. Since the outboard motor had not yet been put into mass production, and paddling soon wore a person out, the only practical means of propelling a john boat was by the use of a "long pole." A long pole is exactly what it implies. It is a very long pole used by the guides to push off the bottom and propel the boat.
Jim Strimple, in the May, 1970, issue of The Ozarks Mountaineer, told of a graduation gift he was presented with in 1922--an Ozarks float trip. "We drove from Kansas City to Galena, Missouri, in a 1919 Buick, which navigated the then not too good Ozarks roads with about the same ease as a lumber wagon in the high-wheeled, hard-tired old car." The starting point of the trip was Galena. Included in the supplies was a fully stocked case of food, a long pole, a paddle so heavy it could hardly be lifted, and a cheek full of juicy tobacco. Strimple continued,
As we floated down the beautiful James River, past the spot where the Cape Fair dock now stands, on past the mouth of the James into the White River and Taneycomo little did I realize the change that was destined to take place. Camping each night close to fresh spring water, cleaning and cooking our fish in this beautiful setting and under the stars was an experience for me never to be forgotten. We took two lazy days from side to side to get away from a possible snarl. With a four pound bass objecting to this retrieve you had a lot to remember.
Our guide kept all of our keeping fish cool and sweet even though the daytime temperatures often reached the upper 80s. He dressed the fish, cooled them out in the cold spring water, encased them in damp green leaves, slightly salted them, wrapped them in newspaper and then in burlap. The only difference that I see now is that the lakes line of beauty has moved back to the shoreline. The great White River country was beautiful in 1922 and continues to be even more beautiful in 1970. I have taken many float
trips during this lapse of 48 years and each one has been a brand new experience.
Wilber Hicks was probably the most successful guide in the business with the exception of Jim Owen, a Kansas City businessman. Jim Owens float service was located at Branson and Wilber Hicks was at the mouth of Swan creek, Forsyth.
Wilber started guiding at the age of thirteen. In Wilbers earlier years short two to three mile trips were available. After the completion of the Missouri Pacific railroad to Branson longer ten day trips could be taken. Along with being an excellent fisherman and one of the best guides in the Ozarks, Wilber had a few personal problems. He drank a little, he would fight anyone, and he would bet on anything. Don Latta remembered, "There was a character around Forsyth who never worked at anything and looked like an out and out bum, but every time he walked down the street everybody acted real respectful like. I once asked this local friend if this fellow owned the bank and he said, Heck no, hes the guy what whipped Wilber Hicks."
Around 1950 Wilbers business was thriving, but with the completion of Bull Shoals dam in 1951, float trips on the White River came to an end. Wilber settled with the government for $50,000, but with Wilbers love of liquor it did not last long.
Steve Holland, current principal of Forsyth High School remembered an excursion when he, Wilber, and a good friend, Charley Campbell, went on a float trip. One morning Wilber started hitting the bottle. By mid-morning Wilber was feeling pretty good, and was put on the supply boat. A little later they came upon difficult shoals and had to get out of the boat and walk it through. Wilber, in the supply boat alone, was angry because he had to navigate the shoals by himself. Charley was running down the bank yelling at Wilber, who kept on going, and much to everyones surprise he made it.
Float fishing as it was has disappeared with the building of the dams on White River; it is just a memory in the minds of older generations. If you can find an old float fisherman, have a good imagination, and have a few hours to spend listening, you are in for as good a time as if you would have been there yourself.
Editors Note: Scotts paper was entered in the 1961-82 Historical Essay Contest. Very descriptive.
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